Warning: This shit is long.
As a writer, you have to do a lot of work for free. What most of the free work shares in common is that it is free work written in hopes of procuring more work. The below is one such fantastic example.
Several months ago, I was asked to apply for an editor job at a fabulous New York glossy whose name I will take minimal pains to disguise. As part of the application process, I was asked to put together 1) a critique — the good, the bad, the vaguely ass-kissy — of the magazine’s previous issue, its yearly arts issue and 2) ten pitch ideas for the magazine’s upcoming issue, which was to focus on the basic thematic concept of “ritual.”
I’m not going to lie to you. I rocked the crap out of this assignment. I knew the person who asked me to apply for the position through another job I was working at the time, so I wanted very badly to impress him. We finally got together about a month after I handed the thing in, and was told that financial concerns had sent the timing of the new hire into flux, but that my incredibly strong proposal meant I could count on a trove of freelance work for sure. Since that time, I have written a grand total of 101 words for the magazine, for which I still have not seen payment. No more work looms on the horizon, despite several amicable emails traded on both sides. And trust me, I know how to schmooze and follow up and go for breakfasts. I had that job for three years.
So, below, the proposal. I’ll leave out the ten pitch ideas and just say that I began THAT section with a John Lennon quote about rituals (“Rituals are important. Nowadays it’s hip not to be married. I’m not interested in being hip.”) that they USED IN THE FOLLOWING ISSUE. Which I discovered when I bought it on the newsstand.
It may not be the most exciting thing you ever read and it will probably lack some necessary context, but I thought it was important someone saw it.
A Critique of [Unnamed Glossy] No. 34, Fall 2004 — The Arts Issue
As I mentioned in my Fametracker critique of the August issue of Vanity Fair, it is immediately apparent and terribly jarring to the reader when the content of a magazine is at odds with the overall editorial mandate of the publication. A James Wolcott-penned polemic about the sorry state of reality television appearing a mere thirty-two pages ahead of a puff piece profile on Jessica Simpson indicates someone is asleep at the switch. And if that person is an Editor-in-Chief who is more focused on espousing static political rhetoric and paying Harvey Weinstein for his next cover story, then that Editor-in-Chief must go, or at the very least he needs to rigorously review his own magazine’s mission statement.
[Unnamed Glossy] stands in sharp contrast to these paradoxes. The periodical is a beacon of progressive culture, and the topics covered by its writers indicate a passion for seeking out what is next and best in arts and entertainment, fashion and lifestyle. Of paramount importance in this equation is the overarching theme for each issue, which acts as an effective grounding agent that pulls the whole issue together. It worked in “The Journey,” it worked in “The Arts Issue,” and I don’t doubt it will work in the upcoming issue concerning ritual.
Right from the “Editorial Notes” in [Unnamed Glossy] No. 34, the current issue finds itself on solid thematic ground, as we’re introduced to the strongest pieces in this issue: the Damien Hirst/Irvine Welsh Face-To-Face, the evocative [Unnamed Glossy] 25, and the “Hemingway Challenge,” which I consider to be the culmination of this issue’s strengths and the creative high point of the book.
The “Fodder” section leads off with the pieces most deserving of full-page attention. The painting that dominates the story on the art lending library and the nostalgia-pang-inducing shots of 90s mix tapes set up the rest of the section perfectly. My single concern about the “Fodder” section in this issue is that I am already intimately familiar with two of the items featured. I know the intent of the section isn’t to prove the magazine’s inherent hipster nature by being the first kid on the block to discover every trend, but I remember reading about Shelley Jackson’s skin project in The Guardian what must have been a year ago. And reading the Glasgow spotlight in the “‘Hoods” piece, I felt hungover all over again at the sight of Irn-Bru, which had its first wave of kitschy fame a few years ago. But then again, I spent a few months in Edinburgh in the Summer of 2002, and Irn-Bru was all anybody talked about during the rare instances in which they stopped talking about David Beckham. Regardless, the whole section works, as seeing some more familiar visual cues helps balance out the more cutting-edge material, like a children’s book about drugs or the last issue’s piece on Jared Buckhiester.
The “Face-To-Face” sent my mind reeling for people I would team up for this incredibly unique section. I couldn’t stop thinking about Elliott Smith and George Harrison having a chat from beyond the grave about songwriting, sadness, and spirituality, or Sofia Coppola asking Todd Solondz if there was something he should tell her about how not to be proclaimed the next great hope of Hollywood and then vanish from the landscape soon after. The meeting of Welsh and Hirst is pitch perfect, the ideal mix of personality and process. Flipping the page, the “Brief History of Art and Outrage” reminded me of a time in this city when one could be openly critical of the Giuliani administration without it reflecting negatively on one’s patriotism. And a very nice reminder it was.
In “Goldfinger,” I had some trouble sussing out the exact topic of the article. Of course Glenn O’Brien is a name in his own right, but I felt that much of his self-introducing introduction could have been confined to the “Contributors” page. When he turns his attention to his subject, it comes off as a bit overstated, and I felt almost bullied into agreeing with O’Brien’s contentions that Fabien Baron is a “genius” and a “maestro” and a “legend” without being given the breathing room to come to that conclusion by myself. Once it turns to the interview portion, however, Baron’s focus on his material makes the rest of it a joy to read. The interview was so unbelievably specific about his process, and I was absorbed by his descriptions of “the rulers, the blades, the smell of ink.” Also, [Unnamed Glossy] here makes use of one of the best aspects of its design: the synergy between the text and the accompanying artwork. On page 86, Baron talks about these incredibly ephemeral design concepts, veering from architecture to furniture, fragrance bottles to magazines, and so on. The art on the next page, then, takes pains to anchor the text in specific ways, featuring some of the most famous faces and products Baron has worked with, providing that essential “ah-ha!” for readers. And, speaking of genius photography, has there ever been a more appropriate shot than the Jason Evans picture of Grayson “Claire” Perry in a dress?
I really responded to the main text of Michael Martin’s piece about pop star artists. Some of the framing devices around it struck me as slightly off-key, however, and might shortchange the text of a bit of its power. First, I felt that the title worked perfectly, but that the intro text didn’t frame the article accurately. The introduction asks, “How far will this craze go?” whereas, in the article itself, Martin asks the more appropriate “Is the art world next?” But, ultimately, the question the article seeks to answer (in response to the contention that pop stars are invading the art world) is, “Is this okay?” Martin hits on something early on when he observes, “We fall in love with the shtick, and any deliberate deviation from form is considered a betrayal.” And I think it’s a great call to focus on the artists who the writer feels are actually creating legitimate art outside of their societally-dictated genre. However, I wonder if it descends into filler when we get to the “sampling of other martists.” It feels at this point as if the trenchant critique of a cultural trend descends into blurb-y review. Also, I wondered the whole time if the absence of John Lennon was simply because including him would have been too obvious. Nevertheless, this story stands in sharp, wonderful contrast to James Wolcott’s Vanity Fair piece about the micro-fame of reality television stars, as it looks boldly at the sometimes destructive, sometimes cannibalizing crossroads of art and celebrity.
Appropriate for an arts issue, the photographs take over primary storytelling duties for the next two pieces. Mark and Sam’s pictures in “Freaks of Fashion” successfully evoke the circus sideshow imagery of the piece’s subject, and Stella Vine’s paintings really bring to life that artist’s journey as well. In particular, I love the “Hi Paul can you come over” painting. I was working at the publishing company responsible for Burrell’s grossly opportunistic memoir when the book came out, and it was this crazy, zeitgeist-y moment that can only be accurately captured in Vine’s childlike, grotesque way.
Besides the fact that I’m so woefully pedestrian that I had to look up Hieronymus Bosch (I’m know, and I’m not proud of it either), a few things in “Capturing Saddam: Portraits of a Tyrant” caught my attention, and not just the typo in the first line of the fifth paragraph. I understand the thesis statement of this article: the end of the dictatorship has upended the Iraqi art world, and has brought an end to the radical art underworld now that people don’t have to suppress their antigovernment tendencies for fear of violent reprisal. And though the story makes the concession right near the end that “electricity in Iraq is still as uncertain as the nation’s future,” it also seems to embrace the stance that the absence of order (that is, the bungled occupation) is tacitly better than the presence of Saddam. And maybe my own ideologies are getting in the way of seeing this piece objectively, but I’m not sure that reality has actually played itself out on the world stage, in politics or in art. The opening paragraph asserts that “[w]hen the monstrous bronze statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in May 2003” — though, in fact, the statue fell at the hands of U.S. troops on April 9th — “it was more than just the symbolic end to the regime.” I assert that it was not. I assert, sadly, that the moment was only symbolism: a symbolic end, a symbolic taking of Baghdad, a symbolic victory for America, a symbolic liberation for the people of Iraq. The piece crawls with pro-liberation sentiment, but only seems to do so as a means of proving its thesis that the art world has been, I guess, deradicalized in some way. But then Sites backs up in the final moments to remind us that the nation is “staggered by the devastation of war and a continuing violent insurgency.” At times this article is at odds with its own belief system: on the one hand, the writer supports the notion that toppling Saddam was best. But he also damns the occupation for its political and artistic ramifications, making it a gooey, centrist piece that lacks a really strong point of view. Wisam Rady is a fascinating case study, but I can’t shake the feeling that he and his work may have been slightly shortchanged.
On page 112, the issue regains its footing with Sam Schechner’s funny, engaging, and brilliantly photographed (the porn star carpet and the vacuum cleaner couldn’t have been more perfect) story about the sexification of the art world. I love that he treats the topic with the gravitas of a fully realized art form, and that he places the 80s and 90s treatment of porn in its proper, Reaganized context. My major concern with this piece is whether John d’Addario was a strong enough source to provide the connective tissue throughout the entire article. Also, we were never told why the Koons exhibit failed while others thrived. But, in general, the art scene is captured beautifully by this thoughtful investigation.
Dana Vachon’s introduction to “Wrapping with Christo” rang much the same as Glenn O’Brien’s intro a few pages back. Now, I don’t really know anything about Christo, and the introductory description of “wrapping synthetic fibers” didn’t do much to crystallize my knowledge. I ran into an overstatement problem with the language, my eyes straining to make sense of the Vachon’s feeling of Jeanne-Claude’s hair “burning bright and red like my anxious blood.” The Lari Pittman article on the next page, however, rang true, and I was gratified and relieved to note that the Volkswagen ad on page 121 was not, in fact, one of Pittman’s creations.
Into the well of the issue and where it really takes off, conceptually, aesthetically, and topically. First of all, a brief bout with nonsensical fawning: I love Naomi Watts. I love her on the cover. I love her in the photo spread. I love everything about it. Arty Nelson nails this piece. The photos, the interviews (Forster! Russell! Where was your Kidman quote, I wonder!), the effortless recall of the central theme of the issue were all spot on. Naomi Watts is an artist who talks about her acting as her art, and she is in tune with the issue’s focus on artists who refuse to be bound by genre lines. Watts comes across exactly as she should: as an artist who just happens to express that art through her acting. Similarly, I found the “Hemingway Challenge” an utter stroke of genius in concept and in design (I’m a big fan of white space and words), and I’m going to go out on a limb and vote Ben Greenman’s entry as my favorite. Moving on, I found the fashion spread a perfect addition to the magazine, though to truly give it its fair due would require an entirely separate critique.
Francine Prose’s intro to “Tokyo Godfather” was much more effective than the kickoffs to the stories about Baron and Christo. I like that she puts herself into the intro while still assuring the audience that she’s there to profile Murakami. And pointing out that the artist seeks to “radically diversify the venues in which his work appears, as well as his means of production” nicely ties this article back once more to the central theme. I wonder if the decision to “shine the spotlight on six emerging artists” in addition to a traditional interview was Murakami’s idea? It feels tacked on, and could probably have made for an entirely separate article.
After two fine works of fiction by two fine authors, I couldn’t get past the opening shot in Jason Sheftell’s article that read, “the male artist has become a Hollywood icon. Every woman wants to fuck him. Every man wants to be him.” If that was self-conscious irony instead of dangerously overused jargon, I missed it.
I’m a reviewer at heart, so I really enjoyed Richard Hell’s take on Tarnation, and I started making a mental list of what films I would choose for the Flick List in an issue that hit stands in October: Sideways, I Heart Huckabee’s, The Machinist, and maybe Dear Frankie, if they ever settle on a release date.
In conclusion, I have John Copeland’s “Rear View” hanging on the front door of my apartment for all to see.